There Are Times When I Think That Jack Kerouac Was Right

Original posted on London to New York blog, March 23, 2010

Bruges, Belgium/Heidelberg, Germany

The London Team Shot
The Opening Shot – The first team picture on Westminster Bridge

DAY Three on the road and about 100 miles from Prague, the normality we left behind seems an awfully long way away.

The Czech Republic is our sixth country since rolling out of Cardiff and my passport has yet to be pulled out of my pocket in anger. In panic, yes, on the regular moments of worry that my camera, wallet, passport or the dorm room keys have gone walkabout, but we have yet to be stopped at any border.

Eating up the opening miles, life on the bus has already settled into a regular pattern of catching up on the sleep forsaken in exchange for another couple of drinks the night before, getting to know our travelling companions and catching up on the latest news and gossip.

At the moment, that’s trying to figure out the exchange rate we got on the border for our Czech Krone and the details of the first international incident of the trip – a rare Welsh victory over Germany.

Mike, from West Wales via Cardiff and Caerphilly, decided a bunch of German kids should not get away with throwing their McDonalds wrappers over the service station car park. An impressive mastery of the international language of waving your arms around and pointing got the message across.

Bruges - The Grote Markt square
Bruges – The Grote Markt square, ideal spot on the opening day for sightseeing…

Prague hovers on the horizon. It is there the trip shifts into a different gear as we pull further away from the familiar and end our opening sprint across Europe with the first two-night stay in one place.

As well as the first opportunity to properly repack my rucksack and discover the things that should have been fitted in and which ones should have been thrown into storage in my spare bedroom, it gives us a chance to draw breath.

There’s been precious little opportunity to dothat since we staggered onto The Embankment just before 7am on Sunday and began the twin jobs of rolling out to New York and getting to know our fellow passengers.

The first job lasted about 400 yards before we were yanked off the bus on Westminster Bridge for a quick team shot in front of the Houses of Parliament.

The second job will continue to do so for most, if not all, the journey.

Bruges - Settling In
…or getting prepared for what lies ahead

In all, we are 16 strong, plus Phil our Kiwi guide and Latvian driver Martins, who is taking us all the way to Moscow and our rendezvous with the Trans-Siberian Railway.

That leaves plenty of room on the coach, although we are filling it with an expanding sprawl of kit, drying towels and provisions – particularly Marlo’s Pantry at the back of the bus – picked up at a giant supermarket in Liege.

It’s a fairly diverse group – not as young as predicted – which has, so far, got on very well.

Fortunately for the allocation of rooms, the 16 breaks down into eight girls and eight blokes, ranging from 18-year-old Freddie to 81-year-old Mary, with a fairly even spread of ages in between.

Among that we have one Aussie girl (Phoebe), one Irish girl (Leila), two Scots, Duncan and Barry, Marlo the Dutchman still waiting for his passport from his Russian visa application and Enrique the Spaniard.

Bruges - Canal
Not that we didn’t get out and about

Having escaped the clutches of the photographer and dropped him and his bike off somewhere in London, it was off to Dover, Calais – supplemented for the ferry trip by three hitchhikers from Glasgow raising money for Sport Relief – and onwards to our stop for the night in Bruges.

It’s not the biggest town – at least the old town isn’t – and gave us the opportunity to wander around the beautiful historic centre and head out for a guided bike ride or people watch with a beer in one of the impressive town squares (a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon).

The evening saw us descend on an Argentinian Steakhouse where much meat was devoured, beers were quaffed and the red wine flowed freely. Maybe too freely in one case.

By the time we took up residence in a darkened corner of a nearby bar, the survivors were on their way to getting to know each other – even those who needed a guiding hand home.

Some of the excesses of the night before – and the discovery of who does and who does not snore (I do, loudly) – were not so welcome come the early start to day two.

Heidelberg Schloss
The view of the commanding Schloss at Heidelberg from one of the town squares

Sure none of us had too many regrets about missing the Belgian scenery as we went about catching up on our sleep.

The long journey was broken up by Phil getting us all up to the front of the coach and giving an introductory spiel about ourselves. Two days in, names and faces are pretty much committed to memory and most of us have had a decent chat with everybody else at some point.

Destination on Day Two was Heidelberg, Germany, the old town’s collection of commanding churches, town squares – Europe does squares much better than we do back home – sitting on the banks of the River Neckar and in the shadow of the commanding Schloss. Very pretty and a very pleasant walk around its streets.

The evening followed a very similar pattern to the one before – a cheap meal in the hostel followed by a few more beers in a bar. It could catch on.

And so to Prague, of which more next time…

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London Calling

Original posted on London to New York blog, March 20, 2010

AFTER months of planning, wading through a to do list that expanded at the same rate as my bank balance diminished, at least seven rounds of farewell drinks and even the appearance of my vacuum cleaner, we are on the road.

Officially, we are not on the road until far too early tomorrow, but we’ve crossed our first border, so that’s good enough for me.

And we did it in a style we are about to get accustomed to – on a bus. The National Express from Cardiff to London and a less than salubrious bed for the night in Earls Court.

Catching the bus from Cardiff
The crowds came out to wave us from Cardiff – or to watch Wales v Italy

Let’s just say the hotel (and that’s a charitable term) was picked for two reasons – it was cheap and it’s just a couple of minutes walk from the tube, which will come in handy in the morning as we have to get on the first District Line tube at 6.39am to make our way to The Embankment and our first meeting with the other inhabitants of the bus.

One of the most common questions we have faced over the last few weeks – who are the other people on the bus?

The simple answer is, we just don’t know. We don’t even know how many others are on the trip.

Finding out is all part of the adventure and large chunks of tomorrow – when we head out of London to a cross channel ferry and an evening in Bruges – will be taken up with finding out about each other.

Apologies in advance for forgetting anyone’s name over the next few days.

We do know a little bit about a few of our travelling companions from the trip’s Facebook page. Nick and myself appear to be somewhere in the middle of the age range between teenagers and pensioners. Not sure which group we will end up with.

The other main question in the last few weeks – apart from “What are you drinking?” and “Is it your round?” – has been “Are you excited?” or its illegitimate brother, “Are you nervous?”.

The answer has changed a bit each time, but has generally been an adaptation of “a bit of both really”.

There has barely been time to be excited or nervous over the last few weeks.

About 10 days ago, that to do list was getting seriously worrying. It just didn’t seem to be shrinking.

Following the example of my organised work self – as opposed to the totally disorganised, “don’t do today what you can put off til tomorrow… or beyond” part of my being which takes over when not working – the list was split up into daily lists which, for the first two weeks, just weren’t getting completed.

As well as sorting things out for the trip, there was also my house – still up for rent at very reasonable rates if anyone wants anywhere to live in Cardiff – to deal with, not to mention squeezing in all those last hoorahs in the pubs of Cardiff.

Then, suddenly, at the start of this week, the list suddenly got a lot shorter, the trees got out of the way – thanks to the nice man who cleared my overgrown garden – and the woods could be seen again. By Friday afternoon, the search was on for things to do.

But, even at the list’s longest, it was never stressful. In fact, I’ve rarely felt so relaxed or, in recent times, slept better – bar one horrible night which combined the aftermath of a throat infection and escalating panic over the non-appearance of my Chinese visa – and the main feeling, certainly this final week, has been wanting to get on the way.

The throat has cleared up, the bags are packed, the Chinese visa turned up after a phone call to confirm I was no longer a working journalist and, finally, we are on the way.

And we’ve already had our first culture shock.

That there London’s a bit different isn’t it? No self-respecting pub in Cardiff or Gloucester would need two oiks to ask for the France-England Six Nations to be put on the television.

And surely nobody in Cardiff or Gloucester would ask how long a half lasts in rugby or argue that England’s try should not have been allowed because the ball first hit the ground short of the line.

That he was not shown the error of his ways is a clear indication of one chilled traveller…

Links:
Google Map – What Lies Ahead

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